Confined for Now

Without repairs to his wheelchair, a West Philly man is forced into a hermetic existence.

By Liz Spikol
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted Mar. 31, 2009

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Lars doesn’t want to be there, every day, sitting in that chair, feet splayed out at an odd angle. But he can’t go anywhere until he gets a new wheelchair and he can’t get a new wheelchair until he has a job and he can’t get a job until he has a new wheelchair. Got that?

Lars Winberg is trapped in his apartment. The apartment—which real estate agents might generously call a “junior” one-bedroom—is too small for Lars, or at least for Lars 24 hours a day, seven days a week. With a kitchen that shares space with the living room, and a small bedroom besides that, there’s hardly any room to turn around. Especially if you’re in a very cumbersome broken-down electric wheelchair, as Lars is.

Lars doesn’t want to be there, every day, sitting in that chair, feet splayed out at an odd angle. But he can’t go anywhere until he gets a new wheelchair and he can’t get a new wheelchair until he has a job and he can’t get a job until he has a new wheelchair. Got that?

This wheelchair came from the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR), the state agency that helps people with disabilities get work. His current chair allowed him to work at Fresh Grocer at 40th and Walnut, near his place in West Philly. You probably saw him there if you lived in the area: big guy, 50, long hair, wide smile—the kind of guy you could see on the back of a Harley, only Lars’ Harley is his busted wheelchair.

I wouldn’t know about Lars if it weren’t for boxer/actor Tex Cobb, best known as the hired gun in Raising Arizona who barrels down the highway on a motorcycle and picks up the baby who’s kicking its tiny feet in a carseat on the double yellow lines. Cobb lives in Philly, and he gave me a call.

“I got a friend named Lars who’s trapped in his apartment,” some gruff-voiced guy said, though I didn’t catch his name.

When I told him I was on deadline, he said irritably, “Come on, Liz. You’re always on deadline.” He left me a number and said to call him there the next day.

“And your name?” I asked.

“Tex Cobb!” he said, and slammed the phone down.

The next day, I tried to call Tex back at the number he left. It was Lars’ number. Well-played, sir. In just 10 minutes on the phone, I knew Lars and I had to meet.

Lars Winberg was born with cerebral palsy in Jersey City and remanded to state custody at 3. Until 18, he was a ward of the state, in and out of foster homes, special schools and hospitals for multiple operations on his bent legs. He was never offered any education. But this sad past isn’t what Lars talks about when we first meet. Instead, when I walk into his small apartment and sit down, he launches into a digressive and humorous conversation about the medical superfluity of circumcision, NPR and how shitty it is to have a therapist who’s not disabled.

Then he says: “There is no God, no definable God, you know, a guy with a beard. First off, what person who lived in a region where there were sheep—because they were all sheepherders—had a beard? The lice would infest all of your hair. They didn’t have bathtubs back when Jesus was walking this earth, if he ever did—and he didn’t. Jesus never walked this earth. Jesus was a control method. Religion is a control method. I am across-the-board, straight-off-the-top, a human being. I don’t care about your religious viewpoint.”

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1. Dave said... on Mar 31, 2009 at 05:12PM

“Excellent article. It's so refreshing to see a well written piiece about pwople with disabilities that doesn't classify us as "heroes." I too have cerebral palsy ann can attest to the racket that is wheelchair repair. Seems as though specialized compainies have monopolies on wheelchair repairs/sales in local areas. So, in a jam, Lars and the rest of us are screwed.

If I might make a suggestion to Lars, local colleges (at least thise with offices for Students With Disabilities) might have some ideas as far as resources for repair are concerned, especailly if students who use wheelchairs live on campus. Also, Veterans Affiars Centers might be able to point you in the right direction.

Again, well done article. Good luck Lars!”

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2. Any update? said... on Jun 12, 2009 at 01:18PM

“any update on lars' struggle? has he gotten a chair that works back?”

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